Roger Wilson New Orleans singer/songwriter Jack Neilson died last week at the age of 50. For many, Neilson's performances around the city became a sonic cure for the still-open wounds of a post-Katrina world. With a voice as warm and troubled as the South itself, Neilson's soul-searching lyrics and intricate guitar playing defied the simple, embraceable nature of his songs.
Neilson began his musical career by performing in local high school bands, and carried his talents and instincts to the prestigious Berklee College of Music, where he immersed himself in formalized study and the Boston folk scene. The experience led to the formation of a well-taught troubadour eager to move to New Mexico. Along with his wife Eileen, Neilson opened EJ's Coffee and Tea Company in Albuquerque. Amidst the swirling aroma of roasted coffee and baked goods that Jack would prepare each day, songwriters and musicians came from across the region to play their original material in EJ's performance gallery, where Neilson also showcased his craftsmanship and eloquence.
Following the birth of his daughter, Sarah Marie, Neilson returned to New Orleans and performed on a regular basis with such local talents as David Torkanowsky, Johnny Vidacovich and John Parker. A turning point in his career came when musician Michael Paz joined him to produce Neilson's acclaimed debut CD, Here I Go Again. This multifaceted gem of a record features Torkanowsky and Vidacovich, along with Dave Easley, Beth Patterson and others in what many consider a transcendental offering.
"If I'd only recorded Jack's voice and not a single other thing, it would have still been a stunning record," says Derek Sivers, president and founder of CDbaby.com, "It was simultaneously touching, charismatic, driving and electrifying. A total mind-body-soul experience,"
Neilson continued to play around New Orleans in support of his record, earning new praise and an ever-increasing audience. His regular New Orleans venues included the House of Blues and Tipitina's, as well as local radio and TV gigs and an appearance on Louisiana Jukebox.
Hurricane Katrina had a powerful impact on the artist's life. Neilson suffered the loss of his sister Ann on Aug. 28, 2005, a day before the hurricane's arrival.
Only a few months later, Neilson earned a coveted place on Arlo Guthrie's "City of New Orleans" national tour. He opened each show of the tour, which began in Chicago and traced the song's fabled path all the way by train to the city of New Orleans. The tour ended with sold-out shows at Tipitina's with Willie Nelson joining the finale. A documentary film about the tour features Neilson prominently. Under the aegis of the Guthrie Foundation, the tour raised a significant amount of money for hurricane relief efforts. At this year's Folk Alliance in Austin, Neilson was reunited with most of the original players from the Arlo tour and played one of the final evening's shows.
Equal to his musical accomplishments was the level of dignity with which Jack Neilson made his way through life. His enduring compassion and thoughtfulness are not only testified to in his music, but by the people who knew him, many of whom placed testimonials on his Web site www.jackneilson.com.
"The Guthrie family loved Jack as a person and for his music," says Michael Paz. "Arlo looked like someone had kicked him in the stomach when he heard the news of Jack's death. Then he went out on stage and dedicated 'St. James Infirmary' to him."
Whether it was in the constant caring of his mother and daughter, or aiding in all ways possible to the needs of his friends and fellow musicians, or perhaps just that stranger on the street, Jack Neilson was a source of immeasurable warmth and compassion. He was also, it seems, acutely aware of that mystic dance between lonliness and love, calamity and calm, and as his words below suggest, Neilson simply expected each of us, like himself, to do the best we can.
Baby I been calling, trying to reach you on the phone / See I had to tell you, something on my mind /If it wasn't too much for me to ask you once again / To hear you say I love you, if you can.
So long for now, you know I'll catch you in a dream / I'll leave a number where I know I can be found / If the answer's no, don't you know I'll understand / Just hear me say I love you, baby hear me say I love you /Hear me say I love you if you can.
From the song "If You Can"
By Jack Neilson